A little over 250 miles from Atlanta lies the small Southern town of Monroeville. Back when I was a child and my family traveled to visit my paternal grandparents, the main attraction of Monroeville was the Vanity Fair Outlet Store, where the prices of everything were reduced by at least one-half. Today the town is more well-known as a prominent location on the Southern Literary Trail. In 1991, thirty-one years after the publication of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, and twenty-six years after the publication of Truman Capote’s groundbreaking non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood, The Old Courthouse Museum opened to celebrate, along with the other history of the town, the lives and work of these two authors who were childhood friends in Monroeville.
Most of the trip can be made via I-85 in Georgia and I-65 in Alabama. When my friend and I exit at Evergreen on Highway 84 about 100 miles south of Montgomery, the pace becomes more leisurely as we encounter the flat cotton fields, tiny towns like Repton and Belleville, and the occasional slow-moving logging truck that characterize rural roads in this part of the country. The main road leading into town has the typical trappings of the “larger” towns of the rural South today–the Wal-Mart, the McDonald’s, the chain grocery store. As we reach the town square, we are relieved to see still standing the remaining evidence of a bygone time of small individually owned businesses such as the hat shop owned by Capote’s aunt and the courthouse where Lee’s father practiced law.
My friend and I arrive at the town square on an afternoon of a sold out production of the drama based on Lee’s famous novel. The lawn and the courtroom inside, now part of the museum, which served as the model for the 1962 movie production starring Gregory Peck and the relatively unknown Robert Duvall, are ready for that night’s production. A lady with a distinctly Southern accent approaches browsers in the gift shop with an offer to serve on the jury for that night’s performance. Unfortunately, we had not purchased tickets in advance and were forced to decline this opportunity to make our acting debuts.
The museum itself is divided into several sections. We first visit the Capote “room.” Somehow, given the author’s penchant for celebrity, it isn’t surprising to see a photograph of him and Lee Radziwill, sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who once visited Alabama with him. A collection of handwritten postcards mailed to his relatives in Alabama are carefully maintained, and photographs taken in his New York apartment feature a handmade quilt and glassware now on display in the museum. Passages from two of his most famous short stories, “A Christmas Memory” and “The Thanksgiving Visitor,” decorate the walls and illustrate the sense of people and place that Capote was so skilled at evoking.
Lee’s “room” is illustrated with photographs of the author and Gregory Peck, who came to town to meet with her as he prepared for his role as Atticus Finch, the main character in her novel. We are treated to photographs of her father, the quintessential small town Southern lawyer, and have the pleasure of comparing them to the famous actor in scenes from the movie. Although Lee still maintains her own apartment in New York, her private quarters are not on display here.
The Old Courthouse Museum provides vivid evidence of the different paths these two childhood friends took. Capote relished the limelight, actively promoted his celebrity status, and cultivated famous friends. He wrote prolifically in numerous genres. On the other hand, Lee is, ironically, partly well-known for her very private life in both Alabama and New York and published only one novel. What is clear, though, is that two people who were children together in a small country town in Alabama had a huge impact on the reading public and continue to do so.
The town of Monroeville is finally capitalizing on that fame, sometimes in ways that perhaps offend the delicate sensibilities of those who see themselves as genteel Southerners. While I understand their sensitivity, I can imagine Radley’s Fountain Grill or the Mockingbird Grill featured as a setting that might fit well into a Flannery O’Connor short story, maybe to be viewed with a roll of the eyes, but finally as a part of a place that’s just proud to be the home of Nelle Harper Lee. Capote, whose life and work, I imagine, breached the comfort level of many natives, does not yet seem to have a café or any other establishment named in his honor.
Many small towns have repurposed their outdated courthouses as museums. They seem to be the perfect building for celebrating a town’s history and perhaps its famous sons and daughters. Does anyone have a “courthouse” museum to recommend?